I talk a lot about lyrics, and that’s because I think they’re one of the more important parts of the music that I listen to. The lyrics are normally tasked with telling the story of a piece of music, and stories are the bread and butter of art in my book. Songs like Hurricane and Iowa are completely dominated by their lyrics: it is easy to imagine these songs written down or spoken out loud as poems, but much harder to picture them as instrumental pieces.
To clarify, I don’t mean to say that instrumental music is always a subsidiary addition to a piece: one need look no further than my recommendation of Horizontigo in an earlier post, and my collection is scattered with both classical pieces and more modern instrumentals from the likes of Mr. Scruff. You needn’t even go this far: imagine Sweet Child O’ Mine without the guitars, or Only You without synth. The balance of lyrics against instruments is often subtle, and thankfully left to better men than I. Still, the lyrics are what I listen to, if they’re there.
The great and powerful exception to this way of thinking about music comes in the form of bands who don’t sing in English. The inspiration for this post was the band Sigur Ros, but before I get on to them, let’s take a look at A couple of others: Rammstein, and Manu Chao. There’s three bands I wouldn’t have expected to reference in one sentence. Rammstein, of course, sing in German: I have to say that despite my total lack of ability to understand what’s going on, German is an aesthetically pleasing language for their kind of music. Heavy, gothic, and slightly scary in their mouths. Manu Chao, on the other hand, swaps between English, French and Spanish to suit the feeling of the song at hand. While I speak English natively, and can more or less follow along in French, I must admit to not knowing Spanish. At all.
If you’d asked me before I first heard Manu Chao, I’d have called that a deal breaker. It turns out that for a song like Minha Galera, lyrics aren’t as important as the feeling you get just from the melody and the sound of the lyrics, which are in Portuguese. Give it a listen, you might be surprised.
So, on to Sigur Ros, who until very recently hadn’t recorded a song in English. For the most part, they sing in their native Icelandic, a language more or less untouched for the last thousand years. As if to emphasise my point, though, they also frequently sing in a synthetic, purely aesthetic language they call Vonlenska; we would normally interpret that in english as “Hopelandic”. This is one of my favourite things about Sigur Ros: it’s not just me that listens without necessarily understanding every word. I don’t have to exert myself to divine meaning, because in a lot of cases, the only real meaning is portrayed through the sound of what’s being sung. The lyrics have no intrinsic meaning, no significance outside of the song. True vocal melody.
See you next time.
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